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Bryant v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California

July 5, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.




         Plaintiff appeals a decision by Defendant Social Security Administration ("the Agency"), denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). She claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred when he rejected the opinion of her treating psychiatrist and when he found that she could perform work requiring a reasoning level of two or more. For the following reasons, the Court concludes that the ALJ erred and remands the case to the Agency for further proceedings.


         In September 2011, Plaintiff applied for SSI, alleging that she had been disabled since April 1996, due to degenerative disc disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, high blood pressure, shoulder pain, heart problem, dizziness, anxiety, and depression. (Administrative Record ("AR") 82, 104, 231.) Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration and she requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ. In September 2013, she appeared with counsel and testified at the hearing. (AR 34-66.) Thereafter, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. (AR 12-24.) Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied review. (AR 1-8.) She then filed the instant action.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Treating Doctor's Opinion

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when he rejected treating psychiatrist Lanlan Wang's opinion that Plaintiff's affective disorder met Listing 12.04 and that she would experience significant difficulties in nearly every aspect of daily functioning. (AR 481-84.) The ALJ relied, instead, on the opinions of the examining psychiatrist and psychologist who concluded that she was not so impaired. (AR 18, 23.) For the following reasons, the Court finds that the ALJ did not err here.

         It is the province of the ALJ to resolve conflicts in the medical evidence. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally speaking, three types of doctors supply this evidence: treating doctors, examining doctors, and reviewing doctors. All things being equal, treating doctors' opinions are entitled to the greatest weight because they are hired to cure and have more opportunity to know and observe the patient. Id. at 1041; see also 2C C.F.R. 416.927(d) (2) ("Generally, we give more weight to opinions froir your treating sources, since these sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of your medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations"). ALJs, however, are not required to merely accept the opinion of any doctor and, where the opinion is contradicted, may reject it for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995).

         Dr. Wang began treating Plaintiff in March 2012. (AT 478.) In February 2013, he completed a Mental Disorders Questionnaire form on which he reported that Plaintiff's history "suggests repeated episodes of decompensation with periods of symptom exacerbation." (AR 478.) He noted that she had shown little improvement with treatment and complained of suicidal thoughts and hallucinations. (AR 478, 479.) He concluded that she would not be able to complete a normal workday or workweek without interruptions; would have difficulty performing activities within a schedule, maintaining attendance, sustaining a routine, staying focused, remembering and carrying out instructions, coping with changes in environment, and interacting and communicating effectively with others. (AR 482-83.)

         Dr. Wang's assessment that Plaintiff met Listing 12.04 and was otherwise unable to perform any type of full-time work conflicted with the opinions of the examining psychiatrist and psychologist, both of whom thought that she could, at a minimum, follow simple instructions and interact with others. (AR 371, 495.) The ALJ gave three reasons for rejecting Dr. Wang's opinion and relying on the examining doctors' opinions instead: (1) Dr. Wang's finding that Plaintiff experienced repeated episodes of decompensation was not supported by the medical evidence; (2) Dr. Wang relied on Plaintiff's subjective complaints, which the ALJ rejected; and (3) Dr. Wang's opinion that Plaintiff was severely limited in her ability to function was not consistent with the routine treatment that he provided her or with her apparent improvement with treatment. (AR 18.)

         The ALJ's first justification is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Plaintiff told Dr. Wang that she had suffered from depressive and manic episodes since childhood, which were made worse by the sudden death of her teenage son and subsequent loss of her job and home. (AR 478.) Based on her account, Dr. Wang found that she must have suffered from repeated episodes of decompensation and a concomitant loss of functioning in daily activities, social functioning, concentration, and task completion. (AR 478.) There is no medical evidence in the record to support Dr. Wang's finding, however.

Pursuant to the Listings, episodes of decompensation: may be inferred from medical records showing significant alteration in medication; or documentation of the need for a more structured psychological support system (e.g., hospitalizations, placement in a halfway house, or a highly structured and directing household); or other relevant ...

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